On a Sunday Morning Sidewalk

Matthew 28:16-20 (NRSV)

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

By Chuck Griffin

As we make our way through Holy Week, I’m struck by how often I’ve returned to a theme in my preaching during Lent. I have hoped that we are all reflecting on how well we fulfill the Great Commission, that basic duty all Christians have.

It’s always important that we find winsome ways to tell people about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Every new generation needs to hear this truth from a previous generation. The task seems especially relevant now, as we begin to consider how a post-pandemic Christian life should look.

Most of the folks who read these LifeTalk devotions on Methodist Life are traditional Methodists, and right now, these people are probably at least a little interested in a big change that is coming, the launch of a new Methodist denomination that will adhere to traditional Christian doctrines. The preservation of these basic Christian concepts is important.

I will make a prediction, however. If we don’t resume fulfilling the Great Commission in a powerful way, a new denomination will prove to be irrelevant! All it does is give us a solid foundation as we begin to fix our biggest problem, which is the unwillingness of most American Christians to find ways to share their faith with others. A huge shift in our attitudes still has to occur.

It is my sense that a lot of us simply don’t know where to start. Having existed with Christianity as our cultural baseline for so long, even elderly Christians have lived most of their lives without having to think much about what it means to share the gospel—to evangelize. Up into the late 20th century, you could build a church building, and people tended to come. Talking about Jesus Christ as Savior was the province of the preacher and a few talented Sunday school teachers.

I want to offer Christians a simple target audience for our message of love and hope. These people are unlikely to enter our buildings on their own. But they are lost, spiritually crushed and confused, and thanks to God’s unrelenting grace, they are beginning to sense they need a change.

We can find them in all sorts of places. It helps to have a guide to go by, however, a way to imagine them so they are easier to see when we are out in the world. I think I’ve found such a guide in an old song.

Back in the late 1960s, Kris Kristofferson wrote a song called “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” A lot of people have recorded it over the years, but Johnny Cash took it to No. 1 in 1970, winning the Country Music Association’s award for Song of the Year.

I’ll simply offer you a chance to listen to it:

It’s raw, of course, and in it I hear the cry of a person who feels the stirring of a vague memory of what is righteous, along with a poorly understood desire to return to it. In a sermon a few weeks ago, I compared the moment to the pigpen revelation the wayward boy has in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Hurting people today may be in superficially different situations than they were in 1970, but I’m guessing their unspoken desire for caring people to come out on the sidewalk and lead them home hasn’t changed.

Let’s learn to be those caring people again.

Lord, as we pray so often, give us eyes to see and ears to hear. We also could use a dose of courage, the kind that allows us to leave our comfortable circles and go to the places where we can offer hope to those in need. Amen.

Scapegoats

By Chuck Griffin

Few Christians think much about the Jewish Day of Atonement, when the ancient Israelites would fast and reflect on their sins as the priests worked to expunge those sins through animal sacrifices.

The season of Lent preceding Easter may be the closest similar experience Christians now have. (Many Jews, of course, still observe the Day of Atonement, or “Yom Kippur,” but without the associated animal sacrifices.) During Lent, and especially Holy Week, we are similarly called to reflect and repent so that we may better appreciate and accept the forgiveness offered to us by Jesus Christ via the cross.

One unusual aspect of the Day of Atonement is recorded in Leviticus 16:20-26. Here, the high priest symbolically placed the people’s sins on a live goat, which was then led into the wilderness and set loose.

This “scapegoat” was one of two goats involved in the ritual. The other goat was sacrificed.

The goats, of course, were a foreshadowing of Christ. Jesus is the one who came as the final sacrifice for our sins. He is the one who bears away our sins forever.

And yet, despite the coming of Christ, people continue to lay the burden of their sins on other creatures. In modern times, we seem to prefer to use people instead of goats.

For example, troubled families often feel better if they can single out one person to label as particularly “bad.” Focus on the scapegoat, and no one has to examine his or her own problems too closely.

Of course, the scapegoat suffers much damage in such a family, particularly if the scapegoat tag is attached in childhood. These people often grow up to be what some call “volunteer victims,” deliberately entering relationships where they wind up the recipients of abuse, the role to which they’ve grown accustomed.

The search for sin is primarily an inward search, and we all have sin from which we should repent. Fortunately, Jesus is big enough and strong enough to bear all our sins away. He’s a very different goat than what we were expecting, though. He’s the Greatest of All Time.

No other scapegoats are needed. In fact, even modern-day scapegoats can find peace through Christ.

Lord, thank you for relieving us of the burden of sin in an eternal way. Help us to surrender more and more of ourselves to you each day. Amen.

Repairs Underway

“Ruth in Boaz’s Field,” Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828.

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, we spend a lot of time considering spiritual brokenness. That can lead to a basic question: How can a good, loving God leave this world in its broken condition?

The Bible actually works hard to answer that question. First, there’s the understanding that the brokenness is not what God desires. It is a result of sin, rebellion against God.

We also see, however, that God is in the process of repairing the damage, and he often uses what is broken to make repairs. I’m reminded of a man I met who made very good knives and other tools out of worn-out files.

As an example from “The Book of Judges,” take the story of Jepthah, found in chapter 11. His mother was a prostitute, causing his half-brothers to chase him away from his father’s lands to keep him from claiming any inheritance.

Jepthah did what many disenfranchised people do: He became a rebel, organizing a powerful guerrilla operation. But when God’s people came under attack, Jepthah used his forces to rescue them. The brokenness in his life actually positioned him to do God’s work.

Or look to the story in “The Book of Ruth.” Here, the widow Naomi lost both of her sons, leaving her in a precarious, life-threatening position. She was a Hebrew woman in a foreign country where she and her husband had moved, Moab.

She tried to send her childless Moabite daughters-in-law away to find husbands for themselves, but one of them, Ruth, refused. Instead, they journeyed back to Naomi’s homeland, where Ruth won the love of a man who ensured both she and Naomi would have a future.

In fact, what seems to be a simple story proves to be critically important to the story of Israel and the salvation of the world. When we see this story in the context of the Bible as a whole, we realize it’s about much more than the love between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law or the love between a lonely man and a needy woman.

Ultimately, Ruth and her new husband, Boaz, had sons, one of whom was a direct ancestor of King David. And that of course means they also are listed in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, who saves the world from sin.

When we see such stories in the Bible, we’re called to ask ourselves how God might be working through the brokenness around us today. We’re encouraged to understand that God sees the pain and says, “That’s terrible, but I’ll use it to my advantage.”

And of course, we’re also reminded that pain and suffering are not eternal. If God is working to repair the world, then an end to brokenness lies somewhere in our future.

Dear Lord, as we are confronted with our own brokenness, may we also be granted a glimpse of how you will transform it to your glory. Amen.

Recognizing the Resurrection

By Chuck Griffin

Once again, I so need Easter. I remember saying something along those lines last year and rejoicing in Easter’s arrival, and I’m doubling down this year.

It’s easy to let the world distract us from our core beliefs. Fear often is the driver behind the distractions. Fear for our health, fear for our financial futures, fear that our lives, or even our churches, won’t be exactly the way we’ve spent years imagining them. So we spend our time working, saving and planning, hoping to manipulate circumstances as best we can. What little time we have to spare we devote to “recreation,” except we seldom spend that time actually re-creating our frantic selves.

The resurrection is the cure. The resurrected Jesus was able to say “fear not” repeatedly for a reason.

Blessedly, April arrives tomorrow, and Easter Sunday is April 17, starting a season of celebration built around the resurrection. Here’s a basic challenge for us all: Let’s once again recognize the resurrection as a very real and powerful event, one that changes everything else.

Try this each morning until we reach April 17. When you first arise, say out loud, “Easter is coming, and I have hope.”

Not all in church have fully absorbed the reality of the resurrection. In a prior appointment, I once had a woman enter my office to tell me she and her husband were resigning their memberships. Naturally, I asked why.

“It’s because of the way you preach about the resurrection,” she said. I pressed further, and she went on to say that they saw the resurrection as a sort of fable (my word, not hers), one designed to help people understand they have hope. “You talk about it as if it really happened!”

All I could say was, “Well, yeah! Christ’s resurrection is the foundation for what we believe. If Jesus Christ didn’t defeat death and come out of the tomb remade, our faith is meaningless.” Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14.

They didn’t stay in that local church, but a sound definition of the resurrection remained, and people who joined after the couple’s departure said they appreciated clear words about this key event impacting our lives.

This year, let’s recommit ourselves to a solid understanding of the transformative power of a very real resurrection. Now, I’m not saying we should rush early into Easter. First, we need to experience the remainder of Lent, Holy Week, and especially Good Friday, so we appreciate the sacrifice that makes Christ’s resurrection, and our own, possible.

Let’s be sure, however, that we all play a part in making Easter 2022 very real and very glorious, celebrating like a people full of hope and eternal life.

Lord, lead us through the dark and somber days remaining in Lent, and show us the great light of Easter.

Empty Space

By Chuck Griffin

In this season of Lent, the word “repent” comes up on a regular basis. Repentance requires more commitment than we may realize.

In the third chapter of Luke, we see how crowds of people responded to John the Baptist’s call to repent and prepare the way for Jesus’ coming. But when they showed up to be baptized, he called them a “brood of vipers.”

Clearly, there’s a little more to repentance than just showing up. As we read on in Luke, we see more clearly what the hairy, locust-chomping prophet was expecting: a true change of heart, the kind of transformation that results in a change of behavior.

The crowd asked, “What then should we do?”

John the Baptist’s answer was simple. If you’ve got plenty, and the poor around you have none, share! Stop being so greedy. He must have sensed there were a few folks in the crowd who planned to keep their extra cloaks and food despite being baptized.

If you have a job, particularly one where you have power over others, then perform your duties honestly, he went on. The soldiers and tax collectors whom he addressed directly were notorious for abusing their power to commit theft and extortion. Again, he must have seen the desire for sinful gain still glimmering in their eyes.

These were just examples. His main point was, you cannot say “I repent” but then go on with your old, sinful ways. “Repent” means that you regret your past actions and put them aside. Without true repentance, all the water in the Jordan River won’t help you.

Salvation is simple. All you have to do is believe that Jesus’ death on the cross is sufficient to pay for your sins. True belief by its very nature requires a repentant heart, however. If you don’t think the concept of sin, and in particular, your individual sins, are a problem, how can you take seriously the need for the cross?

Think of it this way: Ongoing sin fills up places in you where God needs to be. True repentance creates empty spaces, allowing God to rush in.

Anyone in church knows that we still have much to repent. Sadly, even the really obvious sins—murderous anger, adultery, theft, deception—go on among Christians, within what we call the body of Christ.

And then there’s the more subtle stuff—gossip, slander, greed and refusals to forgive, just to name a few—that can do as much damage long-term as murder can do short-term.

Yes there’s always plenty of repentance needed, even among those who have submitted to the water and taken on the name of Christ. I won’t go so far as to call us a “brood of vipers,” but I wonder if John the Baptist might.

Fortunately, we worship a patient, loving God, one who will grant us the power to change, if only we repent and ask for God’s help.

Lord, as we open ourselves to you, search us and show us what needs to be surrendered. Amen.

A Sermon: “Headed Home”

Here’s a Monday Extra for Methodist Life readers. As some of you are aware, this blog began as part of outreach efforts by the Holston Wesleyan Covenant Association. The link below will take you to the manuscript of a sermon I preached last Saturday during worship, before our Holston chapter’s annual business meeting.

Headed Home”

The Altared Life

Ruins near Bethel, where Abraham is said to have built an altar. Photo circa 1920.

By Chuck Griffin

This season of Lent is a good time to consider how we honor and worship God. Abraham, called “Abram” in Genesis until God decrees a name change, is one of those faithful people who serves as a powerful example.

In Abraham’s story, we begin to see how the relationship between God and sin-sick humanity might be restored. In Genesis 12:1-8, God tells Abraham that a faithful response to God will have its rewards. Abraham will be a great nation with a great name. And through him, a blessing will come about that makes it possible for all the families of the earth to be blessed. (Think of a particular descendant, Jesus.)

Abraham is asked to do something in response to these promises—get up and move from a prosperous, comfortable life toward a strange land, Canaan. God seems to be saying, I’ll do something new, but show me you’re the kind of person who can handle change.

I’m struck by how Abraham’s lifelong response to God’s guidance makes use of altars, stopping points along the way where Abraham can worship and honor his creator and divine friend through prayer and sacrifice.

Abraham enters Canaan and builds an altar. He moves deeper into Canaan and builds an altar. God gives him a vision of all that will be called Abraham’s—a vast territory. And Abraham builds an altar.

Altar construction must have been routine for Abraham. Even in Genesis 22, when God makes the strangest demand on Abraham, the sacrifice of the old man’s long-awaited son, Isaac, Abraham faithfully builds the altar and prepares to act. God stops the sacrifice, seeing he has found a man who can pass the ultimate test of faith.

I’m left to wonder how successful I am at faithfully building altars in the modern sense, as I move through the years. Am I constantly looking for new ways and places to give praise and thanks? Do I use worship to mark those times when God’s intervention in my life is obvious? What of my life am I willing to give up to ensure I properly honor my creator and benefactor?

The altared life is the way to live, if Abraham’s story is any indication.

Lord, remind us to respond formally to your grace, and let us find joy kneeling at the altars we construct in this world and in our hearts. Amen.

Starting Point

By Chuck Griffin

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the beginning of our season of Lent. If you attended a traditional Ash Wednesday service, you may have had the opportunity to recite Psalm 51, which is clearly a psalm of repentance.

Whatever you might be planning to do during Lent to draw closer to God, repentance is the place to begin. Through repentance, we open ourselves to God. Through repentance, we relieve ourselves of all sorts of burdens.

So, here is our prayer for today:

Psalm 51 (ESV)

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem;
then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

By John Grimm

The spiritual reasons for fasting have been lost on society.  United Methodists are surprised to learn that John Wesley fasted two days a week in his younger days. Later he fasted on Fridays. Charles Yrigoyen Jr., in “John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Life,” writes:

Wesley was convinced that fasting, abstaining from food or drink, was a practice firmly grounded in the Bible. People in Old Testament times fasted (Ezra 8:23). So did Jesus and his followers (Matthew 4:2; Acts 13:3), and Wesley saw no reason why modern Christians should not follow the same pattern. His plan of fasting sometimes allowed for limited eating and drinking. He found that fasting advanced holiness.

Being holy, is that a reason to fast? Being holy seems to be a reason to fast. Isaiah 58 helps us get to how we should fast.

Why isn’t fasting working? We are rebelling.  These questions matter: Do we practice righteousness?  Whose interest are we serving? Are we quarreling?

God’s grace allows us to see the harsh reality of our lives. Sin is in our lives. At times, our attitudes are horrendous. It almost sounds like we, like Israel, can be spoiled brats trying to get the attention of our downtrodden parents! There must be more to drawing near to God.

What must change to have grace in our lives? We understand the kind of fast has the Lord chosen.  The fast the Lord has chosen includes justice, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, giving clothes to the naked, and welcoming the stranger (among other tasks).  By doing these works, we work in the grace God has given us.

God’s grace can work through fasting. It is not a diet. Fasting is not an idea for young adults and youth who are worried about their body image, who are leaning toward purging. That is a sign of needing help. If you need to get closer to God, to be more holy, then fasting can be one way that you draw closer to God. That is if you are helping those who need help. Otherwise, we are just spinning our wheels.

It is in the basics of our faith that we gain the means to be closer to God, to become holy as he is. During Lent, we can give up chocolate or sweets. That would be categorized as abstaining. But to give up a meal or two and spend the time in prayer and giving those funds to the needy, that is fasting.

Will you fast this Lent? For those of us with health concerns, talk with your doctor before you fast. For those of us who need to get closer to God, to allow his grace to work in our lives, then let us fast. Just do not let anybody know when you are fasting.

Soul Soil

Gardening taught me something spiritually interesting several years ago. It’s possible to make soil in infertile places.

You accomplish this by layering various organic elements. First, you use a heavy layer of newspaper as the base. This kills any weeds in the plot where you want something to grow.

Then you start making layers an inch or two deep, each composed of different organic substances: compost, ground leaves, vegetable peelings, grass clippings, peat moss. You simply lay it on inch-by-inch until you get the depth you want, finally topping it off with a layer of mulch.

After it sits for a while, it’s ready for planting. While living in Georgia, I made some very productive little gardens for herbs, peppers and other vegetables where I had nothing but barren red clay.

One day, I was thinking about what is sometimes called the “parable of the soils” or the “parable of the sower.” This is the story Jesus tells in Matthew 13:1-9 and then explains in Matthew 13:18-23.

The different kinds of soils represent different kinds of people: those who don’t understand the truth about Jesus, those who hear the truth but become discouraged by trouble, those who hear it and become distracted by worldly pleasures, and those who hear the truth and let it grow mightily in them, until it begins to spread to others.

And then I asked myself, “Do you have to remain one kind of soil?”

I don’t think so. God has given us the tools to make good, deep “soul soil.”

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, sometimes talked about the “means of grace,” those ways we can hold ourselves out to God and say, “Please change me.” There are five big, scripturally based ways. And they work together, enhancing each other’s ability to make a person more spiritually fertile.

Prayer is like the paper base. We use it liberally to keep the weeds of the world from growing. Lying close to prayer is fasting. Fasting makes prayer more effective because it keeps us mindful of our dependence on God.

The third layer is Scripture. How can we understand God’s truth if we’re not reading what our Creator has revealed? Reading the Bible has to be a daily experience for any Christian.

The fourth layer in our “soul soil” mix is what Wesley called “fellowship.” We practice fellowship whenever we gather with other Christians. Fellowship keeps us mindful of our need for community.

The fifth layer is the taking of communion. Jesus told us to remember via this act what he has done for us. Communion should be meaningful. It should be regular. And it should be done with the knowledge that God transforms us for the better every time we faithfully participate.

Make some soul soil. God’s truth will sprout in amazing ways.

Lord, in this season of Lent may we find ways to practice all the means of grace, enriching our experience of you. Amen.